And there I was, thinking I had somehow slacked off on my concert-going this year. (Movies are relatively low-impact nights out.) But in a few days I’m off to see my 20th concert of 2009 (Ben Kweller, who’s playing at a PTA fundraiser for Izzy’s elementary school), then Simian Mobile Disco again, and one more to go after that — The Gossip (!), with Passion Pit (!!) opening — which puts me on track with 2008 (22, my Last.fm page reminds me), but nowhere near the insanity of 2007 (see my blog entry entitled Best Concert Year Ever).
But quality always beats quantity, which makes me think that 2009 may be my real Best Concert Year Ever — some, in my mind, positively historic; some with bands performing at the height of their careers; some with revelatory performances. None of these bested my single favorite stage lineup, from last year at Outside Lands (Stars / Andrew Bird / Broken Social Scene / Wilco — I mean, come on), but 2009 was stellar nonetheless.
Highs and lows, in chronological order (This Charming Band, Wilco / Okkervil River, and the Felice Brothers not included):
1. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
The Warfield, 1/28/2009
I started the year off with one of the best concerts in recent memory (and there are more to come below) — eight men and one force of nature. These folks really know how to put on a show — not just involving people staring at their ratty sneakers or hunched over their laptops, but an exuberantly unrestrained experience, with full-gospel belting and horns blaring in a frenzy. Though I gotta say my favorite moment (other than their show-stopping version of “This Land Is Your Land”) was seeing my former student Jocyl suddenly get up on stage and dance with Miss Jones. So jealous.
2. The Philip Glass Ensemble
Davies Symphony Hall, 2/16/2009
Like Mark E. Smith, Philip Glass digs repetition. Certainly more than the former, I figure. The occasion was a heroic, marathon performance of Glass’s landmark Music in Twelve Parts from 1974, with Glass himself on piano — over three hypnotic hours of unspooling musical lines, variations slowly weaving into each other. Valerie called it “monomaniacal” — sure, but in a good way.
Fox Theater, 2/21/2009
Perhaps in the grand tradition of Radiohead not playing “Creep”, or the Clash not playing “Train in Vain”, or the Pixies not playing “Here Comes Your Man” (not true anymore, which is a good thing), Cake didn’t play “I Will Survive”. Or maybe we were just unlucky that night. I suppose any band might be a little resentful if one of their biggest hits happened to be a tossed-off cover song (albeit a great version), but still.
But this at least marked my first visit to the Fox Theater, which, as Kim Deal described, a little later in the year, “This place is fucking beautiful.” Indeed.
4. Masada String Trio
I’ve seen John Zorn perform four times, and each time, as William Vollmann would put it (in his novel Argall), my mouth was filled with gawp-seed. (Masada’s 1998 performance at Temple Emanu-el is still the only concert I’ve seen that I would describe as a religious experience.) This Masada String Trio concert, part of Zorn’s week-long residency at Yoshi’s — oh, if only I had money and time, and could go to every show — didn’t exactly have Zorn performing, but he conducted Mark Feldman, Erik Friedlander and Greg Cohen through pieces from the Masada songbook, and the results were nothing short of staggering.
Says it all.
6. Dengue Fever
Castro Theatre, 5/5/2009
Not exactly a concert, but part of the San Francisco International Film Festival’s yearly indie-band-meets-silent-movie event — in this case, Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World, from 1925. Woozily beautiful psychedelic music, broadly entertaining adventure film with some very cool stop-motion animation (the Pixar film Up pays homage to it), but they don’t exactly play well together, and it’s a little disconcerting, no pun intended, to have Chhom Nimol’s singing in Khmer — a legible and living language, after all — be stirred into the primitivist exotica of Hoyt’s film. (I know, I know, the film is about dinosaurs, and not jungle savages, but still…)
I’ve always liked these yearly marriages of music and film, even if it’s the sort of radical recontextualization of the material that I usually find disquieting. But I’m hoping for music that’s more intertwined with what’s on screen, and not just, say, Yo La Tengo jamming on a single groove the length of a Painlevé short film (which I loved, don’t get me wrong). What I’d love to see is someone like John Zorn doing elaborate sound cues for every minute of a film, but I figure that’s the sort of commissioned soundtrack whose costs would get prohibitive really quickly.
7. Little Dragon
The Independent, 5/20/2009
Good show, but see the November date below. (And a rude observation: why does Little Dragon always seem to be saddled with the most mediocre opening bands ever?)
9. Thao Nguyen
Make Out Room, 6/8/2009
Even more special not just because my musician crush was playing two feet in front of me, but also because my good friend Barb read her poetry during the same event (at the first Monthly Rumpus).
The Fillmore, 7/12/2009
The best part (musical): it was perhaps a couple of weeks after Michael Jackson’s death, and the almost-obligatory MJ medley — here, “Rock With You” and “Human Nature”, with Chico DeBarge — just felt absolutely right.
The best part (non-musical): my date and I were elbowed by some drunk who crashed his way to the front of the stage. A few minutes later, Joe literally stops mid-song (and so does the band) and says (I’m paraphrasing here), “At my shows, women are treated with respect, and you sir, are not doing that.” Then he pauses to let the bouncers strong-arm the drunk guy out of the venue, and only then does he start singing again. A true gentleman.
Second-best part (also non-musical): how Joe would react when the women in front of the stage would hand him their business cards. Joe would take the cards and, without skipping a beat, hold them up between his index and middle fingers and an assistant would run in from the wings and file them for future reference. Dude.
13. Bob Dylan
Greek Theatre, 10/10/2009
Well, I was warned. I guess we all were. And of course Dylan in ’09 would never come close to Dylan in ’69. But those 90 minutes of mumble-and-slur were a bigger letdown than I expected, the only consolation being in the company of my friends (hey, that’s a lot, and ultimately it was a fun evening nonetheless) and hearing the really, really hardworking bar band backing him up.
Random assessment #1 (from Randall): “He seemed pretty spry for a man approaching 70.”
Random assessment #2 (from Keith): “I finally figured out he was singing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ when I caught the phrase ‘like a rolling stone’.”
Then again, all I wanted was just to be in his presence. I guess we all did.
14. Mos Def
The Independent, 10/19/2009
Of all the Albums-In-Their-Entirety concerts I’ve seen (Sonic Youth, Built to Spill, Slint, Liz Phair, and see two more below) this was hands-down the best of the lot. Performing the unimpeachably brilliant 1999 album Black on Both Sides album from start to finish, Mos Def circumvented the built-in predictability of the setlist with the musical interludes in between each track — basically, whatever the guys on the decks would throw on: a Latin groove, a fragment of old-school hiphop, the entirety of proto-punk band Death’s track “Freakin Out”.
And therefore, the element of surprise: Would he lipsync a bit? Would he lead the crowd on a singalong to “Umi Says”? Would he dance? Would he freestyle? Would he crack jokes? Would he do the robot? Would he mime playing the vibes on “May-December”? Did he have a huge, goofy smile the entire time? Yes to all of the above. Probably my favorite concert of 2009.
(I figure this was my friend Melissa’s favorite concert too, because she was one of five people he was shaking hands with at the end. You should have seen Melissa jump up and down. Anyhow, I can’t link to Melissa’s photos because they’re on Facebook, so I’ll do the next best thing: a link to the concert photos by the woman standing in front of me. That’s how close we were.)
15. Echo and the Bunnymen
Fox Theater, 10/22/2009
Hmm. And there I was, honestly prepared to weep during the last minute of the song “Ocean Rain”, but no. What was billed as the Ocean Rain album in its entirety “with orchestra” was something of a letdown: a too-long break between encores, poor acoustics (oddly for the Fox), which made Will Sergeant’s Scouse even more difficult to understand, plus the “orchestra” turned out to be what was more or less just a conductor, a string quartet (though there might have been more), and a percussionist (who was drowned out by the real drummer anyhow).
16. Built to Spill
The Fillmore, 11/1/2009
Doug Martsch must be the calmest guitar soloist in indie rock. He can break a sweat, that’s for sure — halfway through the set, the combination of perspiration and running his hands through his hair with the tufts standing willy-nilly made him look like some demented scientist — but the effortless way he sends his guitar lines soaring over the crowd is almost uncanny. I’ve seen Built to Spill maybe five times now, but this was surely the best I’d seen them play, even if they didn’t perform “I Would Hurt A Fly”.
Random observation #1: If the Dylan concert had the most heads of gray hair in the audience, BtS had the most facial hair on stage.
Random observation #2: I haven’t been to a concert with that many teens in the audience since Oasis in 1996. Very strange.
17. Little Dragon
The Independent, 11/4/2009
I think my tweet from the concert — it’s odd revisiting real-time tweets to recall states of mind — just about sums it all up. (It was actually a rather inarticulate “Holy crap Little Dragon are ON FIRE tonight”.) This was my fourth time to see them (and, I’m pretty sure, their fourth time to visit SF), but I was unprepared for their sheer energy this time — fueled, I’m guessing, by an enraptured audience cheering and yelling every time Yukimi Nagano rocked that tambourine of hers. (Indeed, she was swinging it so hard during the encore that she fell down on stage — and, without missing a beat, continued to hammer the tambourine on the floor.) Part of the joy of watching them live is seeing the lead singer get lost in the music, dancing with a seemingly complete lack of self-consciousness; you will, too.
Fox Theater, 11/8/2009
Oh, what a great time. They played the Doolittle album from start to finish, and really, how could you go wrong with that? Highlights: Frank/Francis/Charles completely shredding his lungs out on “Tame”, the goofy footage playing behind “Here Comes Your Man” (an echo of its video), the crowd shout-along to “Hey” (Chris pronounced it “absolutely fucking genius”), Un Chien Andalou playing on the LED screen before the band walked on stage, and the best surprise of all — the UK Surf version of “Wave of Mutilation” during the encore. When they gathered together in the middle for their final bows, messing about with each other, they looked so — dare I say it? — happy. (p.s. Don’t quit your other band, Kyp!)
19. Buraka Som Sistema
The exemplary ability of Buraka Som Sistema to drag you onto the dancefloor stems from a simple combination: vocals (in Portuguese) spat out like a weapon, steel drums and whistles and stabbing horns, simple choruses that demand either call-and-response or just plain old yelling along (at some point they even sample Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction” just for the hell of it), and an unflagging, irresistible techno thump. And if it’s a venue with acoustics as good as the sound system at the Mezzanine, even better. My dancing for three hours — “with uncharacteristic abandon”, I noted on Twitter — was made even sweeter by the fact that I had been in a leg immobilizer and knee brace and a Kaiser-issued cane for most of the fall of 2009. Praise the baby Jebus, I can dance again.
And once again, a shout-out to all the good people who didn’t mind me bugging you about buying tickets and the late nights and spilled beer and pushing our way to the front and standing in five feet of cubic space with me, some of you more than twice. Thanks to, in concert-chronological order, Courtney, Joey & Lynn, Valerie, Sue, Jeff H., Xochitl, Frank, Laurel, Barb & Oscar, Jens, Jeff L., Lisa, Patrick, Keith & Margaret, Melissa, Chris, Randall & Robin, Dawn, Shaylih, Izzy, Jane, Romeo, Jake, Heinzel, & Monch. Here’s to 2010.